Golf equality required to arrest member decline

For new SGU chairman Tom Craig it's a no-brainer ' golf must change. Picture: Jane Barlow
For new SGU chairman Tom Craig it's a no-brainer ' golf must change. Picture: Jane Barlow
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SUDDENLY, it seems, golf is beginning to get it. After centuries of rampant, blatant and pretty much shameless misogyny, the game Scotland bequeathed to the world is actually beginning to move with the times.

Following the recent installation of women members into the previously all-male bastion that is the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, the R&A has entered into negotiations that will see the game’s ruling body outside the United States and Mexico swallow up the generally hapless Ladies’ Golf Union. And, perhaps more importantly for the rank-and-file golfer in this country, it would appear that the Scottish Golf Union is set to merge with the Scottish Ladies’ Golfing Association. Finally, amateur golf will not be the only sport in Scotland with two governing bodies, one for men, the other for women.

That word “finally” is relevant because this will not be the first time the SGU and SLGA have come close to becoming what will be “Scottish Golf Limited”. In May 
2011, after the women voted overwhelmingly in favour of a brave new world, the 16 geographic Areas of the SGU voted 10-6 against the new proposals presented to them by chief executive Hamish Grey and his staff.

It was perhaps the lowest moment in the organisation’s history, point-
missing of epic proportions and a sure indication that all involved were more concerned with what they perceived as best for themselves rather than the game they were elected to serve. On one side, Grey and others were viewed as wanting too much power for themselves. On the other, the Areas put their displeasure (justified or not) before what was, in the big picture, clearly the right thing to do. It was a pathetic scene, petty politics obscuring the way ahead, few on either side emerging with anything close to credit.

“All I can say is that feelings were running high back then,” says SGU chairman Tom Craig, who took over that role in January 2012. “The SGU is made up primarily of volunteers and they, having given up their time and expertise for no monetary reward, like to feel part of what is going on. The process last time was flawed in that respect.

“There were ten shareholders that didn’t like the proposition. We can’t get away from that fact. And yes, it was hugely embarrassing. It looked terrible, especially after the ladies had said ‘yes’. It can’t happen again and I don’t think it will. In the last three years we have instituted processes that better explain what the SGU is trying to do.

“Communication between the executive, the Areas and the clubs and the individual club member is much improved. But that is a long process and we are only at the start.”

As Craig points out, this time round – albeit after three full years of haggling and, no doubt, much diplomacy to repair precious egos on both sides – things appear much brighter. Which is just as well. In case you haven’t noticed, folks, golf at club level is generally in a bit of a mess. According to the SGU and SLGA figures, there are currently 218,326 golf club members across 590 clubs in this country, down 46,386, or 17.5 per cent, since 2004. If golf is not in crisis already, it’s coming – unless something is done.

“A key role for us is to help clubs understand that things aren’t going to just get better,” says Craig, who runs his own business consultancy firm. “The easy option is to blame the recession. But the reality is that, while the economic downturn brought things to a head, there were underlying problems waiting to happen. For example, on-going social trends make it difficult for clubs – as they are currently set up – to attract members. That’s the single biggest issue facing the vast majority of clubs.”

A big part of Craig’s vision for the future is the amalgamation of the SGU and SLGA. But what such a merger will not immediately change is the prevailing culture within many clubs, one that is hardly welcoming to either young people or family groups.

“I keep using the phrase ‘viable and vibrant’ as the target for every club,” he continues. “All our research points to the fact that clubs need to be more attractive to families. But when it comes to the internal working of individual clubs, we cannot dictate. Our role is to offer advice that will help make clubs more relevant in their marketplaces. So, while amalgamation will not immediately alter what goes on at club level, it is the basis for our leadership going forward.”

Change is desperately needed if many clubs are to survive in a 21st century where competition for leisure time is likely to become ever more cut-throat. The days when dads “escaped” to the golf club for most of every weekend are all but gone, but opportunities to keep him on the premises – alongside mum and the kids – have not disappeared entirely.

“Lots of clubs have no young girls as members,” says Craig. “Changing that will be a high priority going forward. The women’s game needs to be stronger and to do that we need more women golfers. Additional resources will be applied in that area. There is no possibility of women being second-class citizens within the new organisation.

“I don’t agree with the notion that there is more in this for the women than the men. If the women’s game continues to falter, serious damage will be done to the men’s game. If we don’t have the mums playing, it will be more difficult for the dads to play and also take their kids to play. So we ignore the women’s game at our peril. And yes, maybe amalgamation is better for them in the short term. But looking further forward it is best for the game as a whole. I can see things like mixed medals and equal playing rights being the norm in time. But the big thing is being attractive to families. Where our development officers have been asked for help and advice, clubs have moved in that direction.

“We’re already making a difference and those clubs are already more attractive to join. The biggest driver is the recognition that change is a must if the club is to continue to exist.”

More immediately, there is the little matter of the upcoming vote, one that will likely take place on 30 March in a central location such as Stirling. All the signs point to good sense prevailing, which is as it should be. The consequences of a second knock-back are dire indeed.

“The implications of failure this time round are far-reaching in both economic and social terms,” points out Craig. “The word I use is ‘bleak’. None of our sponsors has said to us that not amalgamating would lead to them withdrawing, but bodies like the government and SportScotland have public responsibilities. So it is obvious that the money we currently receive would be at risk if we did vote ‘no’.”

Indeed, at the risk of sounding like the previous and current First Ministers prior to last 18 September, “no” is not an option in this particular referendum.